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updated: 1/6/2015 9:07 AM

Metra hopes to avoid missteps of 2014 polar vortex

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  • An outbound Metra gets lost in the blowing snow at the Arlington Heights train station during 2014's polar vortex.

    An outbound Metra gets lost in the blowing snow at the Arlington Heights train station during 2014's polar vortex.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, January 2014

  • Video: Metra prepares for snow

 
 

With snow expected overnight, Metra leaders Monday listed improvements to equipment and procedures they hope will prevent a déjà vu polar vortex in 2015.

"We're trying to be ahead of the storm," CEO Don Orseno said, adding the agency's locomotives would be running all night and additional workers were being called in. For Tuesday, "we expect the trains will be on time. We expect service will be as normal as possible. If there's problems, we'll do all we can to mitigate them," he said.

A mix of fine snow sticking in doors, ice falling into switches and other cold-weather fallout resulted in a Metra service meltdown in January 2014 during the region's so-called polar vortex. Multiple trains were delayed and canceled along with other snafus. In one instance, passengers on a line operated by Union Pacific were left on an unheated platform in Chicago in subzero temperatures.

One year later, the National Weather Service forecasts bitter cold Tuesday with snowfall predictions ranging from light to 6 inches in the region.

Metra's strategies for a smoother commute include: rebuilding 100 faulty train doors to avoid jams when ice builds up, buying cold-air jet blowers to expedite snow removal and adding heaters to the critical Western Avenue yard to keep switches open.

Enduring one polar vortex provided employees with experience in dealing with a similar big chill, Deputy Executive Director Peter Zwolfer said.

Still, Metra officials advised riders to check for possible delays before heading for the train station, to expect slower trains if temperatures continue at freezing or below and to be flexible.

The one-two punch of snow and frigid weather can create a fluid situation, where one problem can cause a domino effect Orseno said. "Things can change -- like that," he added.

Another concern for passengers in 2014 was inadequate information about schedule changes. Upgrades include a "customize your commute" email alert system, better real-time train tracking on Metra's website and improved coordination with Metra's GPS center.

But Monday's arctic conditions caused some grief for passenger Steve Baldacci of Hoffman Estates.

He boarded Metra's UP Northwest Line at Palatine on Monday and found "cold cars, trains late, lack of announcements, (and) people left at stations."

"We get a fare increase for lousy service. Same lack of planning and poor management," Baldacci said, referencing a fare increase coming February that Metra instituted to buy new locomotives and train cars as well as cover operating costs.

Although new equipment is on the way, Orseno advised passengers that it takes months to build locomotives and rail cars. If announcements are inaudible, he asked riders to inform conductors or contact the agency at metrarail.com/content/metra/en/home/about_metra/contact_metra.html.html.